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Friday, May 06, 2005

Kentucky Derby Picks

- I decided to watch the Wood one more time before I officially picked BELLAMY ROAD in the Derby. Some preliminary observations - in the Carter, the first race on the telecast, Forest Danger came from last to first; I always thought the idea that the track was so speed favoring that day was faulty. Secondly, Mike Battaglia picked Going Wild. Finally, I love Durkin’s call of the Wood; he conveyed a genuine sense of astonishment that reflected what we all were feeling. Watching the race again, and seeing him on The Works this week, it’s hard to believe that any significant kind of bounce is in order. We know that 55 out of the last 56 horses since 1949 who have had less than 3 preps has failed to win the Derby, but no horse in 32 years ran as fast at Aqueduct as Bellamy Road, and the fact he did it despite his jockey’s mid-stretch breakdance, and the way he needed an outrider to help pull him up, makes it even more astounding. I think he’ll brush off Spanish Chestnut at a time of his choosing with the same disdain the White House has for any who dare to disagree with them, and take the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Unfortunately though, since Nick Zito will be sitting alone, we won’t see him hugging the Boss and crying “Mr. Steinbrenner, you’ve won the Kentucky Derby!”

With all the great human stories surrounding AFLEET ALEX we perhaps forget that the horse had to come back from the scrapheap onto which many people, including yours truly, unceremoniously dumped him after the Rebel. Even accepting his excuse, I still felt that the lost time in training would be too much to overcome. Now come a couple of disturbing reports about a less than robust appearance. But his sudden return to form in the Arkansas Derby was easily the second-best prep in terms of figs and come-home time, and his workouts have been splendid. He passes all the tests - 3 preps, solid 2 yo foundation, 3 weeks off, Raise A Native line, didn’t win the BC Juvenile, good looks, a nice camera presence, and he runs a website too. Unless there really is something going on with him, and I’m sure trainer Tim Ritchey would fully disclose any problem, and as long as his jockey Jeremy Rose maintains his cool in his first Derby, he looks clearly second best.

BANDINI is the horse that gives me pause; I’ve been back and forth on him. I think I’m letting sentiment influence me here: I don’t want him to win. I don’t like what his owners are doing with Spanish Chestnut, and I would root for Zito over Pletcher any day. I have nothing really against the latter, except the time I was slightly miffed when he was slightly snitty to a slightly stupid question I asked him at a new owners’ forum a couple of years ago. I really want to eliminate either Bandini or Alex to create some value in exotics with my choice on top, and this one is taking the fall, even though he scares me. I think I’m standing on firm handicapping principles to do so - the Blue Grass has been a poor prep (for the winners, anyway), there’s that :39 3/5 final 3/8ths in that race, his figs are slower than the top two although he was used much harder than Bellamy Road was. Though he raced once at 2, he doesn’t have the 2 yo foundation that that rule is supposed to ensure. Even so, I feel as if I’m using these reasons as an excuse rather than firmly and truly believing that he won’t continue to improve, use his tactical speed to stay close, and kick in down the lane. He’s looked great in the morning (Frank Lyons and Tom Amoss both pick him) too. Nonetheless, I’m taking a nervous stand against on principles, both handicapping and otherwise.

Remember when HIGH FLY won the Florida Derby and was considered Zito’s top and perhaps the Derby favorite too? (Remember when Sun King was?) Since then, he’s gone from favorite to 4th or 5th choice almost as fast as Howard Dean did during the primaries. As you know if you’ve been following events here, I’ve frowned on his prospects. He had identical trips sitting in a comforable second spot behind a willing target in B.B. Best in his two Florida stakes wins, will be outside of south Florida for the first time in his career, and will need an awful lot of great fortune to work out a similar trip; he’ll be facing far different circumstances. Having said that, he’s one bad trip from being undefeated, and he looks much better at 8-1 (though 12-1 would be even better) than he did as the prospective favorite. Still, like everyone else I haven’t discussed yet, his 102 top fig doesn’t measure up and he needs to improve.

I feel as if NOBLE CAUSEWAY has more potential to improve in this race than High Fly does. He has the type of running line that I like to see for this Derby; a mid-pack closer who might be able to pick up a lot of pieces down the stretch; he showed great acceleration especially in his last allowance race when he scooted off the rail on the turn and blew by the field. I like the slow, steady progression of his figs, the way he’s worked out, and I love the switch to Gary Stevens. I don’t like the fact that he hasn’t run in 5 weeks.

BUZZARD’S BAY has really impressed me with his toughness. With all we hear about how tough a trip Wilko may have had in the SA Derby, Buzzard’s Bay’s was just as rough. He was also wide on both turns, and battled for the lead down the backstretch and around the turn, as Wilko drafted behind. He refused to be denied while coming home in a decent :12 3/5. He’s improved his Beyers 15 and 12 points in his last two, and he has as much right to improve again in this race as anyone else. His post is bad, his breeding obscure, and we know about the bad karma that led to that number 20 post. But I think he’s a live one who should be a nice price for the exotics.

ANDROMEDA’S HERO will not win the Kentucky Derby and probably deserves his 50-1 morning line designation. But he’s shown tantalizing ability, though unfortunately, mostly after the races have been over. It’s kind of humorous watching the end of the Lane’s End and Arkansas Derby, as you see him zipping by the winners not long after the wire, which does as much good as the fact that Bush’s approval ratings are in the toilet now, after the election. But at the price, I think it’s worth a shot putting him in the 3rd or 4th spot on the ticket because, while there probably won’t be many horses still running on in the deep stretch of the Derby, there’s a good chance that he will be.

When HIGH LIMIT was forced to sit behind Spanish Chestnut in the Blue Grass, it was the first time he had to look at a horse’s ass during a race, similar to what John Edwards experienced in the vice-presidential debate last fall. As well as he’s trained, and even if he did benefit from the race, it’s hard to picture a pace scenario that would benefit him. I can’t imagine him tangling with Spanish Chestnut anymore than he did at Keeneland, and do you really picture him rallying through the Churchill stretch? At best I could see him trudge on for third; still, he has Frankel and still enough mystique that I can’t eliminate him completely.

As for the others?

SUN KING just showed nothing in the Blue Grass. I agonized over his 91 fig in the Tampa Bay Derby, and considered it confirmed when he ran 4th in the Blue Grass, and I’m sticking to that.

WILKO has only 2 preps and faces the BC Juvenile jinx. The logic of that hex is that the Juvenile takes too much out of the winner, and maybe that’s part of the explanation for his training setbacks this year. In any event, he had no excuse in the SA Derby, and has yet to equal even his 98 Beyer from the Juvenile.

GREELEY’S GALAXY never raced as a 2 yo, and was not overly impressive in his works.

FLOWER ALLEY has only 4 lifetime starts and adds blinkers; he was left in the dust by Afleet Alex at Oaklawn.

COIN SILVER liked the slop in the Lexington.

GREATER GOOD - On top of his slow figs, questionable breeding, and poor last race, he hasn’t exactly burned up the track this week, and has been the subject of rare negative clocker reports.

GIACOMO hasn’t won a race since October

DON’T GET MAD Mad? I’ll be furious if he’s in the money.

Going Wild, Closing Argument, Sort It Out, and Spanish Chestnut don’t even merit capital letters or bold type.

I’m planning to use Bellamy Road on top with Afleet Alex, Noble Causeway, High Fly, and Buzzard’s Bay for second, and add Andromeda’s Hero and High Limit to the mix for third in triples. Unless I change my mind.

- One more thing about Bellamy Road is that I really want him to win; I’d be rooting for him if I didn’t make a bet. For one thing, I was at the Wood to see his performance, which was memorable no matter what happens Saturday, so I feel an allegiance to him based on just that (I had the exacta too!). I’d like to see Zito win the race, both because he’s from NY and the fact that he’s a nice humble guy. I also think that this is the only horse that has shown a hint of the ability needed to pursue what lies ahead after winning the Derby, so it would be an exciting time for the sport. And then, there’s George. Given my repeated references to the John Bolton nomination, one might think I’m hypocritical to root for a horse owned by a guy who has certainly been abusive to his employees at times as well. But the Boss wasn’t nominated to the UN, he’s just the sometimes blustery and cartoonish owner of a last place baseball team. And if you think he hasn’t mellowed considerably, consider that Joe Torre and GM Brian Cashman still have their jobs after one of the most embarrassing collapses of all time.

For those who may have come here recently, I want to just re-tell the story from 1998, when, after Victory Gallop’s incredible win over Real Quiet in the Belmont, which had to be as exciting as any other race run there in its 100 years, Steinbrenner had the Yankee game at the Stadium briefly held up between innings to show the race in its entirety on the scoreboard. How can anyone reading this blog hate a guy who did something like that?

OK, there may be some good reasons I suppose. But this New Yorker is rooting for his horse anyway.